About 75 people, including D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and three members of the City Council, raised candles outside a former Whitman-Walker Clinic building at 14th and S streets, N.W., on Sunday night as part of the city’s 26th Annual World AIDS Day commemoration.
“This day has been a day to remember all those who have been affected by the epidemic and to rededicate ourselves not only to continue the fight against HIV but actually finding a cure,” said Whitman-Walker Health Executive Director Don Blanchon, who served as host of the event.
“On this World AIDS Day we have great hope and optimism that we may see the end of this epidemic in the not too distant future,” Blanchon said. “In this year we have seen tremendous advances in the fight. We’ve seen dramatic improved statistics on HIV/AIDS in our city.”
Gray, who pointed to a significant drop in the HIV infection rate in D.C. over the past several years, said he too is optimistic that a cure for AIDS could come sooner rather than later.
“It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t many years ago that we talked about AIDS being a death sentence,” Gray said. “It is not a death sentence anymore. With the advancement of pharmacology, even those who have full-blown AIDS can live a rich life. As long as the people take their medicine and stay on their regimen they can live a full and rich life,” he said.
Blanchon said Whitman-Walker chose to hold this year’s World AIDS Day vigil at the 14th and S Street site because the building at 1407 S St., N.W., was the home of the then Whitman-Walker Clinic during the peak of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and early 1990s.
He noted that Whitman-Walker Clinic, which has since been renamed Whitman-Walker Health, moved most of its patient care programs out of the 1407 S St. building in 1993, when it opened its Elizabeth Taylor Building one block away at 14th and U streets, N.W. Whitman-Walker continued to operate other programs in the S Street building until 2007, according to Whitman-Walker spokesperson Chip Lewis.
The JBC Companies real estate development firm, which purchased the 1407 S St. building along with adjacent properties, last month, installed a sculptured vertical column called the Pillar of Fire on the sidewalk outside the building. A plaque at the base of the sculpture says it’s dedicated to the “Whitman-Walker Clinic and the many health care workers who served the LGBT community in this building from 1987 to 2008, the early years of the pandemic.”
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who served as executive director of Whitman-Walker during its years at the 1407 S St. building, called on those attending the World AIDS Day gathering to remember the dedicated people who worked on AIDS-related causes in the early years of the epidemic.
“Like everybody else who is here, I want to remember. I don’t want to forget. I want to really remember what happened,” Graham said. “And when I was committing to think of the people that I wanted to mention, there became too many names. People who ought to have been with us today are not.”
Among the names Graham mentioned were Gene Frey, a Whitman-Walker official who died in the mid-1980s of AIDS and for whom Whitman-Walker’s Gene Frey Award has been named. Others named were longtime Whitman-Walker supporters and local AIDS advocates Hank Card and Dusty Cunningham, both of whom also died of AIDS.
Others attending the vigil were D.C. Council members David Grosso (I-At-Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). Also attending the event was Dr. Joxel Garcia, director of the D.C. Department of Health; and Michael Kharfen, acting director of the DOH’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Administration (HAHSTA).
Rev. Courtenay Miller, pastor of Norbeck Community Church of Silver Spring, Md.; and Rabbi Laurie Green of Bet Mishpachah, the D.C.-based synagogue that caters to the LGBT community, led prayers at the vigil.
Blanchon praised Graham for taking the lead in guiding Whitman-Walker through some of the most difficult times when not many other clinics and health facilities were focusing on AIDS
“In this building a small group of dedicated men and women provided care and compassion when many others would not in our community,” Blanchon told the gathering. “In the epidemic’s darkest hours these individuals gave without question what is the best of humanity – compassion, respect and love in one’s hour of needed.”
He added, “So many of those individuals are no longer with us and yet they live on in our hearts and minds. They were our partners, our family members, our friends, and our work colleagues. And today they are the light and hope that we carry forward in the quest to find a cure for AIDS.”